Notice: I’m not a professional reviewer. This article is merely a collection of notes based on my experience with the Z830; a real user’s point of view. I just own this laptop several months ago and disinterestedly give you the information that I’d have liked to know prior to purchasing it. Therefore, I’m trying to talk only about what professionals won’t tell you. (Ny sub-model is the Z830-10F, aka PT224E; your mileage may vary.)
Let’s start with its noisy fan, which is the most serious and unacceptable design flaw I find in an ultrabook this price and overall quality. When the fan kicks in (which happens with the slightest CPU/GPU work), it makes a high pitched, unescapable, annoying and eardrum-piercing noise that will get into your nerves right away (unless you’re one of the blessed ones who don’t care about noise). For example: while editing this blog, and having no other CPU-demanding application or task running, the fan spins for a while every three or four minutes. It’s a shame on Toshiba. How such a corporation damages so much its own reputation with this bug in their “flagship” ultrabook is something that escapes my understanding. Toshiba released a BIOS update that made the fan to kick in less often, which didn’t make it any less noisy but provided some relief to the ears. But, warning!!: I’m under the impression that the latest BIOS update (V1.70) reverts things again, and that the fan kicks in more often. I can’t confirm it 100%, but if you don’t need it, maybe better don’t install it.
Anyhow, let’s go to practical talking. I’ve disassembled the laptop and I believe that the noise has a dual cause: the fan itself and its ssembling design. When holding the spinning fan between your fingers, you can feel the vibration, though the noise is still acceptable; but when you fix it back to its support, the noise becomes louder and high pitched. Here are some pictures:
So, well, after several trial-and-error attempts, I’ve devised a fix for this noise. It’s a very simple “do it yourself” solution that only requires some handyman skills, and the will to undertake it. For me, it’s working like a charm. The fix consists of two measures:
1.- Lessening the fan vibration. For this purpose, I’ve disassembled the fan, placed two tiny rubber washers (hand made, but perhaps you can buy them in a well assorted hardware store), working as “flexible gaskets”, between both case and fan supports (you can see these supports in the pictures above), and assembled the fan again. Only by doing this, the fan noise gets drastically reduced.
2.- Improving the CPU “natural” heat dissipation, in order to prevent the fan from kicking in so often. For achieving this, I’ve placed a solid metallic sheet (of as good a heat conductive material as possible: mine is simple iron, but optimum would be copper), of approximately the same dimensions of the CPU’s laminated heat sink (the black thing on the left top corner in the last photo above) and around 3 mm thick, between the heat sink and the laptop’s magnesium bottom lid, so as to phisically “connect” both metals, sink and lid. This sheet stays in place when you assemble the bottom lid, but maybe it would be a good idea to glue it to the sink with some thermal CPU paste. With this, a good part of the CPU heat gets naturally dissipated, via the metallic supplement, to the magnesium carcass (certainly you’ll feel the laptop warmer on your knees) and the CPU will constantly work colder. I haven’t accurately benchmarked the improvement, but I’d say that, average, the CPU reported temperature is around four to five degrees Celsius lower.
As I say, this works awesomely for me. For my normal desktop use (web browsing, flash, video, music), the fan very seldom kicks in, and when it does, sometimes I don’t even notice it. Total success, I’d say. Sorry if I haven’t been able to explain it very well. I’m not a native English speaker. But if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to post and I’ll try to make it clearer for you.
A note on fan replacement: The Portégé Z930’s fan is identical to the Z830’s, but a bit more silent. I’ve bought one and replaced mine with it, experiencing a little improvement. The “whir” is still there, but not so loud. However, my “MacGyver” fix (inserting rubber gaskets between chassis and fan) is more effective. So, if you’ve got the skills for doing it, then buying the Z930’s fan might not be worth the money.
Enough about the fan. About the screen: bright and colourful enough for a pfrofessional oriented computer, I love the fact that it’s matte. However, the 16:9 factor makes the bezel above and below the display appear absurdly wide; or the other way around: for the lid’s dimensions, the display is absurdly narrow. This laptop should definitely ship a 1440×900 screen, which would perfectly fit its dimensions while offering a higher resolution. I totally agree with whom said that “1366×768 resolution should be illegal”. Anyhow, the most serious problem regarding the screen-lid structure is this: as the lid is so flexible, when it’s closed the slightest pressure on it (e.g. when carrying the laptop around in a bag among other objects) pushes the screen against the keyboard and palmrest, irreversibly scratching it. After only two months of careful use, my Z830’s screen has the indellible marks of the palmrest edge and four rows of keys. Another unacceptable design defect. If you read this review in time, be careful to always place some soft tissue between lid and chassis when closing the laptop, or your screen will end up like mine in less than a blink.
To finish with the screen, there is yet one little but important detail: the down/up brightness keypresses (Fn+F6 / Fn+F7) are software driven instead of BIOS driven, which means that you can’t control the brightness until the operating system is fully loaded. And it is, by the way, a too “heavy” Toshiba software which controls the brightness, taking lots of room in your small 128 Gb SSD. For the same reason, brightness control is not very Linux friendly, requiring some patches to make it work.
The keyboard takes a bit to get used to, but, after some hours, I found myself quite comfortably typing on it. If it weren’t because of the very short vertical travel of the keys, they’d have the perfect touch for me. They’re well dimensioned and comfortably distanced. Also, I love the dedicated Home, End, Page Up, Page Down, Insert and Delete keys, without which I can’t live. So, for the first weeks I was very happy with the keyboard. However: after half a year of normal use (average, half an hour of daily typing), the space bar started failing and, when pressed on the right or left end, doesn’t register a keystroke, which is a pain in the ass. So, after all, it’s not a durable keyboard. If you mean to use the laptop for typing, better look for something else.
I also like the keyboard’s backlight, but be warned: it’s not half as useful as it should be: First, because its brightness level can’t be adjusted; it’s only an on/off feature. Second–and this is important–because when viewing the keyboard at an angle between 15º and 50º (i.e., most of the time you use it), the backlight dazzles you from under the keys, which is very annoying. Third, because the it only illuminates the letters, but not the other functions opaquely drawn onto the keys (volume, sleep, brightness, etc), which would be even more useful, as most of us know by heart the letters’ layout, but not the other functions’ position. So, I’ve ended up not using the backlight, that is only good for consuming the battery. Besides, when in Linux, the light can’t be switched on/off.
The “hard” buttons: there are four of them: power, eco, screen and trackpad; but only the first one is useful; the other three are redundant, as they control functions that can also be controlled via Fn+Fx key combos, or an applet in the system tray: for “eco” mode (to switch on/off some power-saving measures) there’s an icon on the tray; for shifting screens you have Fn+F5; for disabling the trackpad there is Fn+F9. So, those keys are good only for increasing the costs and the price of the laptop.
The trackpad, far from the huge, sensually soft multitouch that some Z830 rivals ship, is of a good quality and very reliable. The only down side I can point about it is the left and right buttons stiffness: they’re hard to click.
As to the ports, this ultrabook comes very well equipped, though I personally find the ethernet a bit superfluos: I can’t remember the last time I plugged a laptop to a wired network. On the other hand, I miss an xD card reader (I have a digital camera with xD storage), though I understand that it is not a very popular format.
But there’s a very nice surprise for some of you: the headphones’ jack is a combined input-output one. This makes the neighbouring input-only jack a bit superfluos, but does a great service, as there’s no more need for those double-plug, green-and-pink headsets. You can use that of your mobile phone.
As to the loudspeakers, considering how small they are and taking into account that this is a professional oriented machine, the sound quality is amazingly good, while at the same time clear and loud. (Tip: if, when listening to music, you close the lid and place the laptop bottom up, you’ll experience a sensible increase in sound quality and strength.)
Only a couple more points to end this article. The battery is lasting me around seven hours from 100% to 0% on the following average use: text processing, wireless internet always on, light web browsing (eight to ten tabs, no flash), a mail client, bluetooth off, seldom photo editing, a remote shell, Skype and some occasional movie downloading. In any case, it’s not recommended by manufacturers to demand extremes from Li-ion batteries, so I usually plug/unplug the power cord between 30% and 70% charge. For increasing battery life, it’s also very advisable to keep it cool, below 30 ºC; but that’s not easy.
However, the worst battery enemies for the Z830 are its leds; its unnecessary and counterproductive leds, having an impact on power consumption. In this respect, the famous apple brand has done a great job with their ultrabook: NO leds at all. Sure, leds use very little power, but they DO use power and, considering how short on battery ultrabooks are, power is gold: it should not in the least be wasted. And the Z830 has up to seven leds! Crazy.
led 1. Adapter plugged in. Totally superfluous (you always know when your power cord is plugged) and, worst of all, quite distracting.
led 2. Power-on/sleep. Same as before, redundant and distracting, plus energy-wasting, as it takes precious miliwatts from your battery and sensibly shortens the standby duration.
led 3. Battery charging. Again, redundant and almost absurd, as you already have an icon in your tray providing that information and more
led 4. Hard disk activity. This is so yesterday! What’s the use of such a led in an SSD-powered laptop? Who cares about the precise deciseconds when the disk is being read or written?
led 5. Wireless antenna on. Once more, a wasteful and practically useless led. I doesn’t tell us if we’re actually connected to a wlan: it only informs about the antenna being switched on.
led 6. Direct wifi. I haven’t used it a single time in eight months. In any case, it’s redundant, because there are icons in the tray for that.
led 7. “Eco mode” (an aggressive power-saving profile). This is where the absurd tops the bill: what is the point in having a power-wasting led to tell you that the laptop is doing its best for saving power?
In my opinion, all of them could have been spared: they waste power and increase costs (besides–at least to my taste–looking tacky, kind of an old Sci-Fi spacecraft dashboard). The Z830’s battery life would score better among its rivals had Toshiba opted for a power-efficient machine instead of giving us redundant information.
By the way, let’s talk about the power adapter. Even though it’s a bit smaller and lighter than other Toshiba models’, yet it’s a bit too heavy and bulky for an ultrabook this light, most of all considering that the cable weight is not negligible. The Portégé Z830, weighing a bare 1.1 kg, deserves a smaller and lighter charger (the type of the Zenbook’s or the MBA’s), compact and directly pluggable to the socket without an “intermediate” cable. (Digression: most manufacturers, reviewers, sellers and specifications’ websites only advertise and/or inform about a laptop’s weight without any accesories; but, as laptops are supposed to be designed for portability, the adapter’s weight should be an essential piece of information.)
One short paragraph dedicated to the SSD. I don’t need to benchmark its performance for knowing that it’s very slow for an SSD. But, of course, Toshiba is shipping their own stuff, which isn’t the best among solid state drives. The good news is that it ships a mSATA III bus, so that the SSD can be upgraded for getting much better transfer rates.
There’s another thing quite important that I miss on this laptop: a wi-fi client manager software. It’s well documented the fact that Windows 7 can’t connect to a certain kind of routers: Win 7 wlan manager is crap; and if you happen to have such type of router, you’ll get very frustrated. This wouldn’t be a problem if Toshiba had a dedicated wlan manager, as many other computer manufacturers have.
Final words: I like the keyboard feel and touch (pity that it’s programmed obsolescence is too fast: in less than one year you’ll have to replace it), the matte screen, the extremely light weight, the magnesium alloy look and feel, the battery life despite the leds and the sound quality. I also like the fact that part of the RAM comes in a DIMM slot, which allows for memory upgrade. But, had Toshiba distributed the costs more efficiently, they could have made an almost perfect ultrabook for its price. I would gladly pay 10% more for a quiet fan, a 1440×900 display, a lighter power adapter and a sata III disk.
Note on removing the bottom lid, or how to open your Toshiba Portègè Z830: Besides the 13 philips screws you see on the bottom lid, easily removable, there is, under the central rubber piece, one “security” screw (a.k.a. “don’t do it yourself”) for which you need a special Torx driver that you can only buy, expensive, online or in a very very well assorted hardware store. As I despise these manufacturers’ tricks to force users to take the machines to the technical service, I worked around this problem like this: with a narrow and hard iron tip, I snapped the central lug in the middle of the screw, and then easily unscrew it with a normal Torx. As easy as can be. No big harm done to the laptop, and now I can open it whenever I want without needing any special expensive tools. This is how it looks now: